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--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------Max Weber (1864-1920)

It is difficult not to compare the work of the German social theorist

Max Weber (1864-1920) with that of Karl Marx. It could even be suggested that a
full appreciation of key aspects of Webers work only emerges by making this
comparison. There comparisons are inevitable since the writings of Marx, and the
political claims of the Marxists who followed him, provided much of the academic
and political context of Webers own social theory. It is important to remember,
however, that Webers understanding of Marx was very limited since many of
Marxs most important works (the Paris Manuscripts, The German Ideology, the
Grundrisse) were not available during Webers lifetime. The Marx that Weber did
know was mostly based on his economic writings and The Communist Manifesto,
and even these as they were being interpreted, rather simplistically, by the German
Social Democratic Party in the 1890s. For Weber, Marx was the author of an
original, but rigid and one-sidedly materialist, theory of historical development, a
point that he tries to prove by offering an alternative explanation of the emergence
of modern capitalism in his famous essay published in 1904/05, The Protestant
Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Having boldly stated the need for comparing Weber with Marx we need to
qualify this by saying that not all of Webers work should be treated in this way.
The comparison actually relates to the fairly specific topic of what social theory
has to say about the origins and nature of modern industrial capitalism. To the
extent that Webers political concerns, his worries about the feasibility of socialism
and the dominance of economic interests, can all be seen in terms of the rise of
capitalism then the comparison is fair enough. Weber did have other interests,
however, such as his analysis of German society and politics, his comparative
history of the world religions, and the contribution he made to the methodology of
social theory, which often have very little to do with Marx and Marxism.
Let us now briefly discuss the biographical and political context of Webers
work. The accusation that Weber produced bourgeois social theory as opposed to
the proletarian social theory of Marx is partly based on the fact that Weber came
from a wealthy establishment family, and thus had the benefits of a privileged
education and good social and career prospects. Following his father (who was a
member of the German Parliament), he trained as a lawyer in Berlin and then took
a doctorate in economics in 1889. He gained his first academic post in 1893, and
only three years later became professor of economics at Freiburg University in
1896 at the remarkably young age of 32 (he later held posts at Heidelberg and
Munich). He then suffered the first of a series of serious bouts of psychological
illness that forced him to give up his job and abandon academic work for the next
six years. The period between 1905 and around 1915 was his most productive,

--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------beginning with the publication of two extended essays as The Protestant Ethic and
the Spirit of Capitalism in 1904/05. He then worked intermittently on a number of
detailed studies in economics, religion, the development of the legal system and
other social institutions. These subsequently appeared in print as Economy and
Society (1921), The Religion of India and The Religion of China (both published in
1916). The General Economic History (1927) was compiled from a series of
lectures he gave in Freiburg during 1919-20, and On the Methodology of the Social
Sciences was published posthumously in 1922 from a variety of articles and
lectures given between 1903 and 1917. In most cases, complete English
translations only became available during the 1950s and 1960s.Weber died from
pneumonia in 1920 at the age of 56.
In terms of the kind of society in which Weber worked, the dominant
political issue was the decline of the liberal, Protestant and highly individualist
attitude of the established middle classes, and the emergence of an authoritarian,
militarised, bureaucratic regime that accompanied the rise of the new Germany
following Bismarks unification of the German states in 1870. The success of the
new regime rested on an alliance between the landowner class of Junkers (who
were forced to rely on political power as their economic power declined), the
military and the emerging classes of industrialists, financiers, bankers and career
bureaucrats. In the last decades of the 19th century, Germany went thought a period
of rapid industrialisation, a process that was accompanied by the emergence of the
German industrial working class although not, significantly, of an independent
bourgeois middle class of the kind found in Britain, France and elsewhere. For
Weber and many of his contemporaries, the demise of traditional liberal values of
personal responsibility and autonomy, and their replacement with a much more
paternalistic notion of national service, was a matter of great concern. Both Weber
and his father made various attempts to express this opposition in the political
sphere. The rather pessimistic tone of Webers work, his sense that German society
and its liberal values were in decline, certainly reflects his rather dismal political
Whereas Marx began his academic career by engaging with the abstract
philosophical debates engendered by Hegelian idealism, Weber started out with the
altogether more practical intention of training as a lawyer and economist. The
emergence of a specifically social-theoretical emphasis in his interests really only
arose after he had already begun to analyse specific topics as part of his
professional work. Weber tended to deal with the more conceptual challenges of
social theory on a need-to-know basis. In this sense, Weber was more interested in
getting on with studying actual things than in devoting time either to establishing
an entire account of historical development, as Marx had done, or to developing a
set of principles for turning the study of social phenomena into a proper science, in

--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------the manner of Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim. This approach accounts for
why there is no unifying theme in Webers work, no overall framework into which
each of his concepts and ideas can be fitted. Whether he liked it or not, however,
Weber could not help but become involved in the heated discussions about the role
of social-scientific study, and the differences between this and the natural sciences,
that were taking place in intellectual and academic circles in Germany around
1900. These philosophical debates began with a revival during the 1890, in
Germany and elsewhere, of one of the old chestnuts of chestnuts of philosophy and
social theory, which is the distinction between empirical knowledge, that is,
knowledge that comes through physical sensation, and rational knowledge, that is,
knowledge in the form of the ideas and other intellectual constructs through which
it is made intelligible in the mind.

--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German philosopher, had argued that while
knowledge of the real world was something that comes through our physical
senses, it can only be made sense of once this information has been structured and
organised by the mind. The human mind thus imposes a rational structure on the
raw data of experience and feeling. All knowledge is thus a production of rational
intellectual processing and as such reality cannot be regarded as a thing that is
entirely distinguishable from knowledge of it. Reality in itself cannot be known.
(Kants position is dualistic because he accepts the necessary combination of sense
perception and cognitive reason. Hegel is monistic as he emphasises the absolute
primacy of intellectual reason alone.)
Kant tried to reconcile his rationalist view with the strict objectivism and
empiricism of John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-96) who argue that
all our ideas and concepts, including both physical sensations and intellectual
reflections, are derived from practical experience of the world around us and not
from pre-existing capacities of the human mind. From an empiricist viewpoint,
there cannot be any knowledge or consciousness until after we have had physical
contact with the material world around us. This dispute over the two basic kinds of
knowledge knowledge derived a priori from within the conscious mind and
knowledge derived retrospectively from sense perception provides an important
backdrop to debates about the nature of social-scientific knowledge.
Kant further argued that the free individual was intuitively capable of moral
self-direction. As natural objects (objects of investigation), the properties or
behaviors of individuals could be investigated according to the same scientific
methodologies that would be appropriate for any natural object. As moral subjects,
however, individuals are not part of the natural world, for God has given the
individual free choice to act in either a moral or an immoral fashion. A civilized
society is one that encourages individuals to act morally. But society cannot
deterministically generate morality because moral action is always, in part, an
outcome of free will.
The Kantian emphasis on the dualism of the individual - the view of man as
both natural object and moral subject - strongly influenced Simmel and Weber.
Both of these latter theorists were Kantian in their belief that, in the final analysis,
the moral decisions of individuals never could be judged good or bad from a
sociological point of view. For Simmel and Weber, sociology, unlike biology or
chemistry, had to come to terms with the fact that, to some extent, the individual
was not, and could not be, constrained by determinate laws. Kants greatest impact
on modern thought then was perhaps the idea that as a rational, independent moral
entity, the individual is free from at least some extrinsic, causal determinants of

--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------The younger followers of Kant or neo- Kantians were faced with the
problem of defending the rationalist approach, used in the historical, cultural and
social sciences, against the empiricist approach of the natural sciences. The
considerable success of the natural sciences during the 19th century (a success that
was reinforced with every new advance in technology or feat of industrial
engineering), allowed the empiricists to suggest that the kind of knowledge that
was generated by the speculative, metaphysical and inductive approach of the
social sciences, really did not constitute proper knowledge at all. Indeed, there was
no reason to suppose that the search for the general laws of motion of social
phenomena should not be carried out using the tried-and-tested empirical
methodology and methods of the natural sciences.
The neo-Kantians, and other interested parties including Max Weber, thus
turned their attention to these issues:
They wanted to challenge the idea that the kind of knowledge generated by
the natural sciences was the only kind of knowledge available.
They wanted to show that the two kinds of science had to be different
because they were looking at two fundamentally different kinds of
If these points are valid, then it was obvious that two distinct methodologies
were required to investigate them.
These philosophical debates, between the positivists and anti-positivists,
which began in Germany in the latter part of the nineteenth century, are popularly
referred as Methodenstreit. For some three decades prior to the outbreak of the
First World War, German academic life was dominated by a number of related
disputes about methodology (the so-called Methodenstreit), the most general and
probably the most important of which dealt with the relationship between the
natural and social sciences.
One group led by Carl Menger, an economist, who advocated the use of
positive science methods in social sciences as well. He argued that the scientific
methodology of natural sciences should be used to arrive at general theories in
social sciences seeing human motives and social interaction as far too complex to
be amenable to statistical analysis. On the other hand, the anti-positivist scholars
(particularly the neo-Kantians) emphasized upon the subjective dimension of social
reality and thus, did not see the possibility of any kind of universal generalizations
in social sciences.

--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------It will be useful to begin by outlining the controversy between those who
think of sociology in terms of natural science and those who think of it as being
quite different from any natural science and perhaps more like history or
philosophy. What are the differences between nature and society which would
require radically different methods of enquiry? They were first clearly stated by
Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) and were then widely discussed by German
historians and philosophers, especially Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1915) and
Heinrich Rickert (1863-1936).
There are two major differences between the natural world and the social or
cultural world. First, the natural world can only be observed and explained from
the outside, while the world of human activity can be observed and comprehended
from the inside, and is only intelligible because we ourselves belong to this world
and have to do with the products of minds similar to our own. Secondly, the
relations between phenomena of the natural world are mechanical relations of
causality, whereas the relations between phenomena of the human world are
relations of value and purpose. It follows from this, in Diltheys view, that the
human studies should be concerned, not with the establishment of causal
connections or the formulation of universal laws, but with the construction of
typologies of personality and culture which would serve as the framework for
understanding human strivings and purposes in different historical situations.
Dilthey contrasted nature and society in terms of their subject-matter. He
argued that reality can be divided into autonomous sectors a fundamental
distinction being that between the realms of nature and human spirit with each
sector being the prerogative of a separate category of sciences. In other words,
Dilthey believed that since social or cultural science studied acting individuals with
ideas and intentions, a special method of understanding (Verstehen) was required,
while natural science studied soulless things and, consequently, it did not need to
understand its objects.
Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1915), one of the leading neo-Kantians, on the
other hand proposed a logical distinction between natural and social sciences on
the basis of their methods. Natural sciences, according to Windelband, use a
nomothetic or generalizing method, whereas social sciences employ an
ideographic or individualizing procedure, since they are interested in the nonrecurring events in reality and the particular or unique aspects of any phenomenon.
He argued that the kinds of knowledge generated by the natural and the social
sciences were different because they were looking at two different levels of reality.
Whereas the natural scientists were concerned with material objects and with
describing the general laws that governed their origins and interactions, social and
cultural scientists were concerned with the ethical realm of human action and
culture. Although knowledge of natural phenomena could be achieved directly

--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------through observation and experimentation, knowledge of human motivation, of
norms and patterns of conduct, and of social and cultural values, necessarily had to
be based on a more abstract process of theoretical reasoning. You can only infer
that somebody is in love; you cannot actually see love.
The association of social phenomena with values was also considered by the
German philosopher Heinrich Rickert (1863-1936) who strongly influenced
Webers views on the matter. Rickert (who was himself adopting a famous
distinction between fact and value that had been made by the Scottish
Enlightenment philosopher David Hume [1711-76]), argued that the natural
sciences are sciences of fact and so questions of value were necessarily excluded
from the analysis. The social sciences, in contrast, are sciences of value because
they are specifically concerned with understanding why social actors choose to act
in the ways that they do. While it is appropriate to disregard questions of value
when studying the physical or chemical properties of things, it is certainly not
appropriate to do so when studying human social action and its consequences. It is
relatively easy to show what the properties of carbon are, where it comes from and
what will happen if you combine it with some other material. What you never need
to do is explain how carbon atoms feel about any of these things.

--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------The prevalent intellectual and political context had a deep influence on
Weber in shaping his perspective as well as ideas on subject matter. Weber partly
accepted and partly rejected all the three major theoretical orientations. For
example, he accepted the positivists argument for the scientific study of social
phenomena and appreciated the need for arriving at generalizations if sociology
has to be a social science. But, he criticized the positivists for not taking into
account the unique meanings and motives of the social actors into consideration.
Further, he argued that sociology, given the variable nature of the social
phenomena, could only aspire for limited generalizations (which he called
thesis), not universal generalizations as advocated by the positivists.
Similarly, Weber appreciated the neo-Kantians for taking into cognizance
the subjective meanings and motives of the social actors in order to better
understand the social reality but also stressed the need for building generalizations
in social sciences. As stated earlier, taking a cue from Immanuel Kant, the neoKantian scholars argued that the reality is of two kinds, natural reality and social
reality. What distinguishes social reality from the natural reality is the presence of
Geist(Spirit or Consciousness) and by virtue of the presence of Geist, human
beings respond to the external stimuli in a meaningful manner, not mechanically as
the physical objects do. Therefore, human behaviour can only be understood in the
light of these meanings. Thus social sciences should try to understand the human
behaviour from the actors point of view keeping in mind the meaning and motives
that underlie such behaviour.
Weber, agreeing with the neo-Kantians, believed that human beings respond
to their environment in a meaningful way and therefore, human behaviour has to
be understood in the context of the underlying meanings. Therefore, Weber argued
that to build the strategies of social research on the methods of natural sciences
alone would be a serious mistake. The methodology of social sciences should focus
on understanding the human behaviour. According to Weber, the cognitive aim of
social sciences is to understand the human behaviour. A sociological explanation
should therefore be meaningfully as well as causally adequate. (Please note that the
causal explanations are used in all sciences. Social sciences should also use causal
explanations but besides the causal explanation, the explanation in social sciences
should be adequate at the level of meanings as well. That is how the cognitive aim
of social sciences goes beyond that of the natural sciences.)
However, Weber criticized the neo-Kantians proposition that
generalizations are not possible in social sciences. Weber argued that all sciences,
whether natural or social, begin with the study of a particular phenomenon and try
to arrive at some generalization. Though Weber admitted that social sciences may
not attain as much success in arriving at generalizations as natural sciences because

--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------the ability to discover generalizations is dependent upon the degree to which there
is a pattern in the reality. So, given the variable nature of the social phenomena,
social sciences could only aspire for limited generalizations. He further argued
generalizations arrived in social sciences would not have the same exactitude as of
those in natural sciences. Such generalizations would merely be indicative of a
trend or tendency. Weber argued that we may call such limited generalizations as
thesis rather than the theory.
Weber also partly accepted Marxs view on class conflict (economic factors)
in society but argued that there could be other dimensions of the conflict as well
such as status, power, etc. Further, Weber was also skeptical about the inevitability
of revolution as forecasted by Marx. Weber accepted the Marxian logic of
explaining conflict and change in terms of interplay of economic forces but at the
same time criticized Marxian theory as mono-causal economic determinism.
According to Weber, the social phenomenon is far too complex to be explained
adequately in terms of a single cause. Hence Weber argued that the social science
methodology should be based on the principle of causal pluralism. (Please note
that Weber was not rejecting the Marxian theory but rather supplementing it.
Weber agreed with Marx that economic factors do have a profound influence on
social life. But he considered economic factor as only one of the factors that
influence social life.)
To summarize, Weber is regarded to have been influenced by neo-Kantian
ideas in his perception of the nature of social life. According to him, behaviour of
man in society is qualitatively different from that of physical objects and biological
organisms. What accounts for these differences is the presence of meanings and
motives which underlie the social behaviour of man. Thus any study of human
behaviour in society must take cognizance of these meanings to understand this
behaviour. The cognitive aims or objectives of sociological studies are, therefore,
different from those of positive sciences. While positive sciences seek to discover
the underlying patterns of interactions between various aspects of physical and
natural phenomena, the social sciences, on the other hand, seek to understand the
meanings and motives to explain the social phenomena. Hence positive science
method alone would prove inadequate to study the social behaviour. However,
Weber was not opposed to building generalization in social sciences, but, he
pointed out that given the variable nature of social phenomena, only limited
generalization can be made.
Weber conceived of sociology as a comprehensive science of social action
which constitutes the basic unit of social life. In consonance with his general
perception of the nature of social reality, he defined social action as
the meaningful action oriented towards other individuals. Presence of meanings

--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------as well as other individuals is equally important for any behaviour to qualify as
social action. For Weber, the combined qualities of action and meaning were
the central facts for sociologys scientific analysis. Weber defined sociology as
a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order
thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects. The technical
category of action described in Webers work is all human behavior to which an
actor attaches subjective meaning. Action is social, explains Weber, in so far as,
by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual, it takes
account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course. However,
an isolated social act does not exist in real social life. Only at the analytical level
can one conceptualize an isolated social act. What exists in reality is an on-going
chain of reciprocal social actions, which we call social interaction.
Thus, according to Weber, sociology is a science concerning itself with the
interpretive understanding of social action. For Weber, social action is the basic
unit of social life and hence the subject matter of sociology. This logically follows
from his basic assumption that individuals are cultural beings but have an ability to
take a deliberate stand of their own. Therefore, individuals are capable of
attributing a subjective meaning to their behaviour. Thus, as a sociologist, one
must look at human behaviour as social action. As stated earlier, there are two
elements of social action viz. presence of meaning and orientation towards others.
In the absence of assigned meanings by the individuals, the actions are
meaningless and thus outside the purview of sociology. Similarly, the actions
which are not oriented towards others are also outside the purview of sociology.
Now, since meanings are the fundamental character of social action, so if the
nature of meanings changes, the type of social action also undergoes change. Thus,
based on the nature of meanings, Weber constructed a classificatory typology of
social action. However, he cautioned that this classificatory typology is only for
the purpose of analysis. Though it is rooted in reality but it does not mirror the
reality. He based his classification of social action on the pure types of meanings,
although such pure types of meanings are never found in reality. Weber argued that
social reality is infinitely complex. There is an infinite variety of meanings that can
exist in social life. However, according to Weber, all these meanings can be
analytically reduced to four pure types of meanings. These four pure types of
meanings are not found in reality. In reality, any given social action reflects a
combination of two or more pure types of meanings.
Thus, based on these four pure types of meanings, there are four pure types
of social actions. Weber classified social action into four major types on the basis
of the nature of meaning involved. These four types of social action are:

--------------------Aditya Mongra @ Professors Classes-------------------1. GoalRational Action (Zweckrational action):

The actor determines the practical goal (rational, specific, and
quantifiable) and chooses his means purely in terms of their efficiency to
attain the goal. (Please note that in reality there is no pure goal-rational
action. But the meaning involved in action tends to be predominantly
goal rational).
2. Value-Rational Action (Wertrational action):
Value-rational action is the one where the means are chosen for their
efficiency but the goals are determined by value. The action of a captain
who goes down with the sinking ship or that of a soldier who allows
himself to be killed rather than yield in a war are examples of such
3. Affective or Emotional Action:
In certain situations the sole meaning involved in peoples behaviour is to
give expression of their emotional state. Here emotion or impulse
determines the ends and means of action. Such an action is termed as
affective or emotional action. For example, the case of a mother who
hugs her child, embracing an old friend, etc.
4. Traditional Action:
Traditional actions are those where both ends and means are determined
by custom. Here, the meaning involved is that of maintaining a
continuity of the tradition. Rituals, ceremonies and practices of tradition
fall in this category.